I took my first yoga class more than a decade ago when I was working as a PhD researcher at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (VU Amsterdam). Like many other people, I came to yoga focused on the physical benefits I could expect: greater flexibility, balance and strength. At that point, I had no idea just how much yoga can help with anxiety, but over the years (and after eventually earning my yoga teaching certification), I realized the much broader benefits of yoga practice. I experienced healthier emotional states and discovered many aspects of yoga beyond the poses that enhance my quality of life.
As the effects of the coronavirus (COVID-19) spread through the globe, it can be difficult to not feel fear, panic and anxiety with the onslaught of updates on news and social media. From legitimate fears for vulnerable loved ones, to uncertainty about job security and finances. There are many ways that the stress caused by the current pandemic can impact our mind, body and general wellbeing. Whether we are chronically affected by anxiety or experience only mild bouts, it can interfere with day-to-day activities.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), physical symptoms of anxiety include trouble sleeping, irritability, muscle tension, edginess, restlessness and fatigue(1). As more people fall ill – at the time of this writing, the World Health Organization reported that there are almost 4 million cases worldwide(2)– it is likely that all the sudden changes to our lives, the negative thinking patterns and the constant panic and anxiety will continue to increase and we need to find ways to cope with this “new normal” situation.
Yoga is one of the stress management tools as suggested by the United Nations(3) to incorporate into our routine for relieving emotional disturbances and lower overall stress levels. Modern-day sciences help us understand how the yoga practice helps reduce the impact of exaggerated stress responses and help with panic and anxiety.
The key to finding peace and tranquillity can be found within our autonomic nervous system(4). Two key branches of this system are the sympathetic nervous system (responsible for the fight or flight reflex) and the parasympathetic nervous system (responsible for the rest and digest reflex). In times of fear and stress, our bodies tend to activates the sympathetic responses. We start to hold tension in our shoulders, necks, jaws or elsewhere. Excessive muscular tension can then feedback to our minds and perpetuate the feeling of unease and anxiety. Existing with such constant anxiety is mentally and physically draining, and not good for our long term health.
Yoga postures, known as asanas, help ease the physical discomfort that is caused by anxiety. Asanas work to stretch, lengthen, and balance the muscles and help in releasing built up muscle tensions and stiffness throughout the body. Yogic breathing exercises, known as pranayama, helps us regulate the breathing, which intimately connected to our nervous system. When we are stressed and anxious we tend to take rapid, shallow breaths, or we might even unconsciously hold our breath. During the yoga exercises, we slow and deepen our breathing, thereby soothing the nervous system. Regular yoga practice appears to modulate the body’s stress responses by stimulating our parasympathetic system. This, in turn, decreases physiological arousal, for example reducing heart rate, lowering blood pressure and easing respiration, thereby bringing our bodies into a more restful space. Available medical reviews of a wide range of yoga practices suggest that people who practice yoga experience less anxiety, less depression and fewer symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder.
For many of us living in the time of COVID-19, we need a strong immune system and a clear, informed, level head to be able to make wise choices and act quickly if we need to. The yoga practice may be a very appealing treatment option that is a relative low risk, cost-effective, widely accessible, associated with high social acceptance, and high yield approach to better manage anxiety symptoms and to improve overall health.
Dr. Kamonchanok “Jib” Sansuk
4. Gard T, Noggle JJ, Park CL, Vago DR and Wilson A. (2015). Potential self-regulatory mechanisms of yoga for psychological health. Front Hum Neurosci. 8:770.
5. Kochupillai V, Kumar P, Singh D, Aggarwal D, Bhardwaj N, Bhutani M and Das SN. (2015). Effect of rhythmic breathing (Sudarshan Kriya and Pranayam) on immune functions and tobacco addiction. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 1056:242-252
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